In Congress’s rejection of the deal that would have turned ownership of many of the nation’s ports over to a company owned by the government of Dubai, the Bush administration reaped what it had sown.
Having stoked people’s fears since 9/11, the president and his advisers were nonetheless unprepared for the sudden, searing blowback from across the country (and especially from members of their own party) at the prospect of placing the ports in the hands of a Persian Gulf state.
Predictably, however, the administration ignored its critics and failed to learn its lesson. At the same time that the ports deal was falling apart, the president was in India announcing yet another misguided agreement. In New Delhi, Bush told his delighted hosts that he was not going to hold India accountable for clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and for refusing to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Instead, he endorsed India’s plan to increase its civilian and military nuclear-production capacities-the latter without international oversight or the imposition of sanctions. (U.S. cooperation will enable India to produce up to fifty additional nuclear weapons a year.) Bush’s offer to India was a stunning reversal of decades of U.S. nuclear-containment policy. In return, the president hopes to encourage trade with India while curtailing its thirst for oil.
Fear can be a powerful political force, particularly when fanned by a plausible, if vague, threat. In the ports deal, many Americans were concerned that terrorists might smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country. So the unprecedented rebuke the American people sent the president on the Dubai deal was not, as the president tried to suggest, simply the result of xenophobic hysteria. Rather, the resounding public response was the predictable consequence of this administration’s constant hyping of the threat posed by terrorists. Only when the president stops exaggerating and distorting the actual dangers we face will Congress and the American people be able to evaluate rationally the pros and cons of something like the Dubai ports deal.
As far as anyone knows, no terrorist group has yet acquired a nuclear device, or been successful in putting one together. While the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to the physics and engineering involved in making a nuke, getting one’s hands on the needed materials has remained blessedly difficult. To produce weapons of this sort requires enriched uranium or enhanced plutonium, and the processing logistics appear to require resources available only to governments. Thanks in part to the NPT, to which China, Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and France are signatories, the spread of nuclear weapons has at least been hampered, though not completely. India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have acquired the weapons, and Iran would like to. The stupendous destructive power of these weapons has put them high on the wish list of governments and terrorist groups alike. No wonder weapons-grade materials must be assiduously guarded-and when possible, destroyed. Procedures designed under the Nunn-Lugar Act (1991), following the end of the cold war, were an important attempt to ensure that the vast quantities of nuclear materials manufactured in the former Soviet Union would not fall into the wrong hands. Similarly, the NPT precluded signatories from sharing nuclear materials with nonsignatories-or with noncooperating states like India and Pakistan. So the president’s sudden decision to help India expand its nuclear capability sent out shock waves and alarms.
President Bush may be correct in arguing that India, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country, deserves special recognition and encouragement; that it represents a significant U.S. trading partner; that it has legitimate needs for more nuclear-generated power; and that, despite resisting participation in the NPT, it should now be considered a permanent member of the nuclear-weapons club.
By not pressing India to join the NPT, however, and by refusing to abide by America’s own treaty obligations, the president has further eroded our moral standing and accelerated the nuclear-arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions. As the Economist editorialized (March 11) on Bush’s gratuitous gamble, China can now “be expected to insist on doing for proliferation-prone Pakistan what America wants to do for India.”
The president’s failure to anticipate the unintended consequences of his decisions is not new: the war in Iraq, the Medicare prescription debacle, Katrina, the deficit explosion, the torture memos all come to mind. While India deserves respect and encouragement, it must not be rewarded for its acquisition of nuclear weapons and indifference to the international community’s concerns. As in the ports case, Congress should reject the president’s proposed deal with India. No president should be allowed to abrogate treaties, or to take the nation to war when and where he alone sees fit.
March 28, 2006